Why Watford, having endured 35 years of striking ups and downs, are dreaming of FA Cup glory

Why Watford, having endured 35 years of striking ups and downs, are dreaming of FA Cup glory

The FA Cup is not the tournament it once was. Football has changed, and the famous old competition can no longer compete – both financially and reputably – with the Premier League or Champions League. That said, it remains a big deal for many clubs in England. Although some prioritise finishing in the top ten and others focus on promotion, there are still certain sides who dream of lifting the Cup. One such club is Watford, who are looking to end 35 years of hurt when they face Manchester City in the showpiece final.

This story begins in the mid-1970s when the Hornets, languishing in the fourth tier after two relegations in four years, were one of the worst performing teams in the country. Although well supported, they were not considered one of England’s big clubs. They had never appeared in the First Division or won a major trophy. 

However, they did have a famous admirer who was desperate to see them succeed. Spending his youth idolising the likes of Duncan Welbourne and Cliff Holton, Elton John was a huge Watford fan, and by 1976, he was at the height of his musical powers. Your Song, Tiny Dancer and Rocket Man were all huge hits, and he had enjoyed five consecutive number one albums in the US.

While the superstar dominated the front page, Watford were lucky to get a mention in the back. But that year, aged 29 and armed with a substantial bank balance, the chart-topper decided to invest in his beloved team. He became Watford chairman and, despite having little knowledge of football administration, vowed to lead them to the First Division. 

Despite his ambition, his reign at the club began poorly as they failed to gain promotion in his first year. Dissatisfied with the team’s efforts, John replaced manager Mike Keen with Graham Taylor, who had just led Lincoln to the Fourth Division title. Aged just 32, he was a young and exciting manager who knew exactly how to get out of the bottom tier. 

However, doubts about John’s new regime remained. Many saw his involvement as a gimmick and questioned his severity, but Taylor was quick to dismiss this. “We’re both committed,” the new manager told the BBC. “He has mentioned the passion that he has for Watford. I like to feel that I have the same passion, and I think on that basis you’ll get a very good relationship.”

John was also quick to put the press in their place. “A lot of people in the game are very suspicious about me,” claimed the singer. “Of course they are – I’m not a fool. I think I’m quite an intelligent young man. And they probably want me to fall over flat on my face. But I’m passionate about this club with a capital P.”

Read  |  Remembering Graham Taylor, the gent who forgave English football

Buoyed by his chairman’s confidence, Taylor got straight to work. Not initially interested in spending vast sums of money, he developed the talent already at the club. “You cannot just build a football club thinking that when things go wrong, you can just go out and replace,” said the coach in 1977. “That isn’t the way to build a football club.” 

It proved a wise decision. Top-scorer Ross Jenkins, forwards Alan Mayes and Keith Mercer, and defenders Bobby Downes and Alan Garner all starred for the Hornets as they stormed to the title; smashing the points record set by Taylor’s Lincoln side just three years earlier. 

With aspirations to go further, Watford added steel to their back line the following season by signing defenders Steve Sims and John Stirk. These shrewd acquisitions helped them finish runners-up with the best goal difference in the division. If a win would have been worth three points back then, they would have been champions. 

Despite back-to-back promotions, the following two campaigns proved challenging for Taylor’s team. They managed just 12 wins in their first season back in the second tier and finished 9th the following year. It was now clear that if John was going to achieve his ambition, more talent had to be brought in. In came youngsters Kenny Jackett and Nigel Callaghan from the reserves, experienced professionals Pat Rice from Arsenal and Gerry Armstrong from Tottenham, and perhaps most importantly of all, a young forward by the name of John Barnes. 

The 17-year-old, who had been plying his trade in the Middlesex League, secured a contract after impressing on trial. After that, he never looked back. His 13 league goals helped secure second place, meaning only one thing – after years of heartbreak and mediocrity, Watford were finally a First Division club.

As the Hertfordshire town celebrated their glory, Taylor turned his focus to the following season. He had no experience of managing at the highest level, and with the Hornets not having the financial resources to match the top sides, critics questioned whether they were strong enough to survive in the big time. “Time will tell,” responded Taylor in a 1982 interview with Jim Rosenthal. “But I’ve seen a great amount of money spent on players, and I don’t see those teams in the top seven or eight. And if you haven’t got the money, it doesn’t matter. You have to be realistic. If you haven’t got the money, you can’t spend it.”

Figurative resources didn’t matter to Taylor. What mattered was that they could keep on successfully employing a direct style of football. “The one thing we are predictable in – and have been for the last five years – is winning,” said the coach. “If I can keep that style of play going in the First Division I’ll be more than happy. We look to get the ball. We admit what we are.”

Read  |  John Barnes: pioneer, genius and still under-appreciated

And Taylor would have been delighted with what followed. 27 league goals from Luther Blissett and dazzling performances from Barnes helped Watford finish runners-up in the First Division. The season highlights included a famous 8-0 victory against Sunderland, a double over Arsenal, and a 2-1 victory against European champions Aston Villa.

Yet Watford never really challenged for the title. They finished 11 points behind winners Liverpool and didn’t have the squad depth to compete with one of the best sides ever to grace the English game. With players like Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, Alan Hansen and Bruce Grobbelaar, it’s fair to say that no one in the country could compete. 

However, finishing second was still a remarkable achievement. It was best league season in the club’s history, and perhaps they will never finish that high again. John wanted to reach the First Division, but never in his wildest dreams would he have foreseen Watford becoming the second best team in the country. 

Unfortunately for the Hornets, the following year was much tougher. With Blissett heading to AC Milan and Armstrong joining Real Mallorca, Taylor lost some key first-team players. Although he did manage to bring in prolific goalscorer Mo Johnston, they could only finish mid-table. Yet 1983/84 still proved to be a glorious campaign – because they made it to the FA Cup final. 

Their journey to Wembley began in January when they faced Luton in the third round. After a draw at Kenilworth Road, they won an exhilarating replay 4-3 to set-up a fourth-round tie at Charlton. They duly dispatched with them, before beating Brighton at home in the fifth round. A 3-1 win at Birmingham followed, and a 1-0 win against Third Division Plymouth at Villa Park secured their place in the final. 

Watford, a club who were in the bottom tier less than a decade before, were now participating in the biggest event in English football. It was a sight to behold for John sitting in the stands. He was witnessing Taylor, the man who had masterminded their rise to the top, walking them out in front of 100,000 joyous spectators, many of whom were donning the yellow of Watford. It was an image that personified just how far they had come. 

It also presented just how big an occasion it was – and Watford didn’t have the experience to cope. Their opponents, Everton, who were accustomed to winning league titles, eased to a comfortable victory. Goals from Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray helped complete a 2-0 win and Howard Kendall’s side were champions for the fourth time in their history. 

After the match, a disappointed Taylor was full of praise for his players. “It was a fantastic achievement [reaching the final],” said the boss. “[It’s] the only time Watford have got to the final and to achieve that bearing in mind the level of performance, bearing in mind the players we had. It was really a first-class job just to get there. But it was disappointing. I don’t care what anybody says, it’s always disappointing if you get to Wembley and lose.”

Read  |  How Everton’s glorious 1995 FA Cup win over Manchester United changed the course for both clubs

As tears streamed down John’s face, he and Taylor knew they had missed their chance. It may have been their ambition to reach the First Division, but for a club like Watford, winning the FA Cup was the ultimate prize. It was something they never dared to dream about until it was right there in front of them – and sadly, over the next 20 years, that dream slipped further and further away. 

Although Taylor kept them up for a few more years, when he left for Aston Villa and John sold the club in the summer of 1987, Watford were relegated twice within a decade. Seeing all his hard work unfold before his eyes, Taylor took over the managerial reigns once again in 1997. John also came back as chairman, and initially, success returned to Vicarage Road. 

Watford achieved back-to-back promotions to return to the newly-named Premier League – but as the famous saying goes, lightning doesn’t strike twice. Taylor was unable to keep them up, winning just six games all year, as they finished rock bottom. The dynamic duo departed once again, only this time, they didn’t return.

Financial hardship followed – as did a one season return to the Premier League under Aidy Boothroyd – but things eventually calmed down and the Hornets had seemingly found their level. They were a Championship team; destined to flirt with promotion and relegation, but never establishing themselves in the top flight. 

However, in the summer of 2012, a new dawn descended upon Vicarage Road. They had been purchased by the ambitious Pozzo family – owners of Udinese and Granada – who set their sights on the Premier League. They also had a very good manager in Sean Dyche, who, after working his way up from the under-18s, had guided them to their best league finish for four years.

But when they sacked Dyche and replaced him with Gianfranco Zola, question marks were raised. Although they helped bring in top quality players like Fernando Forestieri, Manuel Almunia and Matěj Vydra, they failed to get promoted. Dyche, on the other hand, had just taken Burnley to the promised land on a shoestring budget. The new owners were left red-faced. 

Numerous managerial appointments followed. Within the space of a year, Zola, Giuseppe Sannino, Óscar García and Billy McKinlay all came and went. But when former Chelsea player Slaviša Jokanović was hired in October 2014, everything began to click. They won ten of their final 14 league games to confirm automatic promotion. Once again, they were back in the big time. 

Read  |  Is there any magic left in the FA Cup?

However, more turmoil followed. Jokanović bizarrely left after promotion, and although his successor Quique Sánchez Flores managed to keep them up, he lasted just a year. It was the same story for Walter Mazzarri during his uninspiring stay in Hertfordshire, and Marco Silva – who took Hull down the previous season – couldn’t even last a season.

With nine managers in less than six years, the Watford job felt like a poisoned chalice, and when Javi Gracia was hired in January 2018, that cynicism remained. The former Osasuna, Málaga and Rubin Kazan manager was an unknown in England having never coached or played in the country. 

But over the last 18 months, Gracia, helped by the inspirational captaincy of Troy Deeney, has proven himself to the Watford faithful. Not only has he continued to keep the club in the top flight, but he has followed in the footsteps of Taylor by guiding them to the FA Cup final. They did this by overcoming Wolves in a game which is already being remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the club’s history. 

Sat 2-0 down with 11 minutes to play, defeat seemed inevitable for Gracia’s team. But three goals, including a Deeney equalizer in the 94th minute, turned the game on its head. Thirty-five years beforehand, another generation of Watford players were 2-0 down in a match of similar magnitude. That team folded in the face of defeat, but this Watford side met the challenge with pure determination. 

“This team has got something special,” said Deeney minutes after the result was confirmed. “We’re not the most talented, we’re not all that. But the hard work, the desire. You’ve seen there – 2-0 down and many teams would have called it a day. But we keep going.”

Although it was a historic victory, many believe it will all be in vain when they face Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the final. The five-time FA Cup winners have beaten Watford in each one of their last ten meetings. In fact, the Hornets haven’t beaten their opponents for over 30 years. As well as being one of the best sides in Europe, City are Watford’s bogey team.

But maybe, just maybe, this crop of players – inspired but not burdened by the past – can dig deep and find something special. Maybe they can write the wrongs of ‘84 and deliver glory to the people of Watford. Maybe they can be the team to end the club’s long wait for a major honour. In a one-off game, anything can happen – and this tie promises to be quite the occasion. 

By Tom Blow @Blowsive

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